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Iraq: Shi'a Leaders Press For Direct Elections To Transitional Assembly

Influential politicians and religious leaders in Iraq are questioning how best to choose a provisional national assembly -- a key step toward eventual Iraqi sovereignty. The U.S. has proposed using provincial caucuses for selecting assembly members. The influential Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the current Governing Council president, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, are pressing for direct elections.

Prague, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the past several weeks, politicians in Iraq have been debating the details of a plan proposed by Washington and endorsed by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that outlines a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis next summer.

Specifically, there is concern about how to choose the members of a transitional assembly. That's an important consideration because the members of that assembly -- to be chosen by the end of May -- will themselves elect an interim national government by the end of June. The Coalition Provisional Authority will thus be dissolved and the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq will formally end.

The U.S. plan proposes using provincial caucuses -- not a direct vote -- to choose the members of the transitional assembly. But this idea is opposed by Shi'a leaders, who prefer direct assembly elections, which they say are not only realistic but would give any future government more legitimacy.

Further steps provide for elections to a constitutional assembly in March 2005 and fully democratic elections for a new Iraqi government by the end of 2005.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is considered to be the most powerful spiritual leader of Shi'a Muslims in Iraq. Al-Sistani has expressed his support of direct elections -- at first vaguely, then more definitively. Because he does not make public political statements, however, his ideas have had to be interpreted by those politicians who have met with him.

The current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is also a Shi'a leader, subscribes to similar ideas. The U.S. has yet to formally respond to such a proposal.

Because the Shi'a make up the majority of Iraq's population, they are likely to dominate any directly elected body. Minority groups have expressed their concern over such an outcome, but Shi'a leaders say any confrontations can be avoided.

Al-Sistani's remarks caused a lot of speculation in Iraq. Initially, it was unclear at what stage of the transition plan al-Sistani thought it possible to hold elections. Now, many analysts believe al-Sistani and his supporters want the transitional assembly to be elected.

Neil Partrick, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, told RFE/RL: "[Al-Sistani] expressed reservations about an earlier idea of drawing up a new constitution without having elected or, at least, representative people involved. That was one of the factors that led to the latest set of proposals, which will see elected people shaping that new constitution. And then you could argue that in the process of bargaining, recognizing his advantage, he's now come back and demanded more in terms of the elected element of the provisional government that is due to be appointed in the middle of next year."

Partrick believes the idea of direct elections is getting wider support in Iraq because of dissatisfaction over the level of representation on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, whose members are widely seen as puppets of the U.S. "There is some significant unhappiness with the current [U.S.-proposed] ideas for caucus elections in the provinces to elect the assembly because these would be seen, and, indeed, in practice, are likely to be shaped significantly by the Governing Council -- about which many Iraqis have significant reservations," he said.

Due to the Shi'a majority, there are fears that Iraq could become an Islamic theocracy like neighboring Iran. Indeed, more conservative Shi'a leaders have pointed to Tehran as a model for Iraq. But Partrick says the situation should not be considered an automatic cause for conflict. "It does not necessarily mean the dominance by Shi'a Islamists because there are differences amongst Islamists, and there are other Shi'a politicians who don't share an Islamic conception of what should be the main thrust of the political direction of the country," he said. "But certainly, there is a problem which is recognized by the coalition."

Al-Sistani is believed to favor keeping the clergy out of politics, however.

Partrick says U.S. authorities should be sensitive to the concerns of all sides to ensure the transition of power in Iraq is as consultative and as representative as possible.